Gobbling filtered through the tiny Midwestern woodlot where I sat against a wide, black walnut tree, not daring to blink an eye and trying to do everything correctly. I made a couple more yelps and clucks.
Movement over my right side indicated the turkey had circled and was moving slowly behind my shooting plane. The gobbler cautiously moved in, looking in my direction several times but not noticing me. He made several more gobbles, stepped behind a big bush and was gone.
Only past failures made me stay in that spot while trying to catch my breath and slow my heart. More experienced hunters might have moved to ambush that bird or try to find another lonely victim. I made two clucks several minutes later while hoping for another gobbler to happen by when the woods erupted with a booming gobble from behind the bush. My turkey had moved on, but came back, determined to find that hen. Minutes later he lay dead, 10 yards away.
I learned not realizing that he could still be in the area was a mistake. I let that bird pass and called him back.
Let’s examine the best course of action for different scenarios.
STAY: I have observed a lot of turkey behavior over the past 30-plus years. Experts agree on the importance of taking what a gobbler gives you by watching and listening. A gobbler may stay around the area. When he does not appear spooked, wait 15 or 20 minutes and then call softly. He may be close. Chances are he will come back.
A lone mature gobbler will seldom leave the area unless enticed by a hen. Stop calling and listen for soft sounds like spit and drumming, walking in the leaves or soft purring with clucks. After at least 30 minutes to an hour of silence.
MOVE: I once listened to three big bird’s chain gobbling for half an hour, 30 yards away. They were interested in veteran hunter Brad Harris’ calling, yet not coming in. We moved about 20 feet farther up a hill and in minutes one of the big birds was shot and tagged. Later Harris explained that the toms thought their hot hen was moving away.
“When I feel a gobbler needs a bit of extra teasing I will move around a bit to simulate a real hen contently feeding,” said Brad Harris, veteran turkey hunter. “Content turkeys move up and back, around and over an area as they feed. Moving a bit and calling adds realism to the set-up. Generally it does not take much of a move. Sometimes a bird simply does not want to come back to a specific spot. A simple move to change angles may be all it takes to fool him. You will occasionally spook the bird when moving, so use discretion.”
MOVE A GREATER DISTANCE: “Setting up in the wrong location often means passing on the shot when your gobbler comes in range,” said Steve Stoltz, Pro-Staffer for Knight & Hale Game Calls & Mossy Oak. “You may miss that window of opportunity while that particular bird is hot. When your hot gobbler leaves the area, immediately set up on this bird in a new location.”
Spring gobblers usually display what Stoltz calls the "magic" period, when they are the most excited and fired up within 30 minutes after hearing hen sounds. Stoltz changes spots immediately, sometimes by backing out and making a wide circle to cut off the gobbler’s retreat. The bird’s intensity level usually tapers off, requiring setting up in a new location before he cools down.
Stoltz suggests two important tactics when repositioning. First, make sure that you back out without spooking the bird. Use the terrain to accomplish this. Don't worry about the noise, generally crunching leaves or sticks may fire him up even more. Second, try changing calls.
“Remember, you don’t have to use turkey sounds to keep a certain bird located,” Stoltz says. “I recommend using a non-turkey sound to check his location while re-setting up on him. Good choices are crow, owl, hawk or coyote calls.”
Don’t panic if you lose that window of opportunity. The gobbler will likely stay in the area. Have patience, stay in his general location and you might fire him up when he finishes with his hens.
ANOTHER DAY: I spooked a big gobbler who came in while I was stretching last spring. I shot him a week later.
“Hunters should pass on low percentage shots, regardless,” said Chris Parrish, owner of Kustom Calls and a champion caller and veteran hunter. “The turkey does not always come in where we expect. I will hunt this bird another day if he is somehow spooked and quick to leave the area.”
EXPERT ATTITUDES: Parrish and Stoltz have learned a lot about gobbler behavior while filming for Knight & Hale’s television shows or creating DVDs. Unique challenges occur while setting up for a gobbling bird in any location, resulting in a good film hunt.
“Much has been written over the years about two styles of spring turkey hunting, the aggressive cut-and-run method or the passive, patient method,” Stoltz said. “Both styles work well, given the right conditions. The style that you see very little written about is the third style of spring turkey hunting – mental or thinking like a gobbler. We study wild turkey language, habits, characteristics, patterns and lifestyle. The more knowledgeable you are about wild turkey idiosyncrasies, the better you will be at making that crucial decision, whether to pass on a gobbler, move and set up again or stay put.”
SET UP FOR SUCCESS: The turkey’s No. 1 defense is their eyesight. A gobbler does not like to walk into thick areas of cover where he can’t see danger. He may avoid the direct approach and come in from an unexpected direction, or not at all. Their second line of defense is their hearing. They usually can pinpoint the source of a sound within a few feet. A longbeard will eventually reach an approach point where he should see a hen. He may stop or his mood will change. He might even stop gobbling and approach quietly.
Think like a gobbler and you will better understand what he is doing and why. This knowledge will help you make a more accurate decision on whether to stay put or set up in another spot after passing on a gobbler. More importantly, this will help you make the correct decision.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org